Producers vs consumers

In thinking about systems, we come to realize that all our actions, reactions and inactions have ramifications, effects on other people, and can even set off chain reactions. This is true in our relationships with our loved ones and families, but also with those we don’t know and never see.

Here is an example. Within your household, there is a division of labor regarding basic chores and actions required to keep the house running. When you are contributing positively or building up the system, some actions you take might be ensuring your share of the chores get done so that your partner or other family members don’t need to ask/remind you and their needs are met. This builds trust, goodwill and “good karma” within the system.

If instead you choose not to do the chores you have been assigned (or assumed, if this sort of thing just happens in your household), let others pick up the slack and neglect to acknowledge their extra effort, you are breaking down trust, destroying goodwill and putting destructive energy into the system. Eventually, the system will no longer be sustainable due to lack of investment from all parties.

On a larger scale, the same can be said for your participation in the economy. Politicians like to talk about the “makers and takers,” but it isn’t that simple. We all “make” or contribute to, and “take,” consume from, the economy. Every time you make a purchase, the choice about where and what to buy contributes to the system. In aggregate, our decisions as consumers have a greater effect on what is available in the system than just about anything else. Those decisions express to the system what our values are.

If we all purchase everything we need from Amazon to take advantage of their free shipping and online shopping convenience, it should not surprise you when your favorite mom-and-pop shop down the street goes out of business. This is exactly what has been happening over the last several years. We have chosen to use our purchasing power to get the cheapest widgets in the cheapest way possible, not prioritizing the quality of the widgets or the quality of the service provided within the sales process.

It is also no wonder, then, that when we put on our producer or service provider hat and create widgets ourselves to contribute to the economy, we find it harder to make a living. It is impossible to compete in general commerce with the Amazon behemoth. Similarly as a provider of a service, there is often an online presence able/willing to provide a similar service for half the cost.

The problem with this system is that, over time, it is unsustainable. We all shop at Amazon precisely because we make less money as producers and most people do not view how they participate in the economy as a moral question. We all end up earning less money and are forced to spend less to maintain our standard of living. It is a downward spiral.

The other problem with this system, as it has been built is that the way we measure the economy is flawed. We calculate economic productivity with GDP, which is based on the value of goods and services exchanging hands in a period of time. As goods and services are becoming vastly cheaper over time, we collectively are consuming more to prop up the economic system. GDP grows as our consumption patterns grow. Our consumerist tendencies are driving the “growth” that gets reported in the numbers, even as most of us don’t see any benefit. Wages stagnate, health care costs rise (which is calculated as a net gain for the economy) and we the workers and small business owners and self-employed artists keep falling behind.

We need to make different choices to build a better economy. Spend your money like you mean it, with passion, intention and meaning. As though it has a value greater than what it buys. Consume less, of greater quality and produce more, give back and do what you can to be less transactional with your time and creativity.

Now as we are all experiencing the great pandemic pause, for those who are able, consider these thoughts so that when things settle into a new normal, more of us are able to make choices to build a new, better economy focused on quality over quantity.

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